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If we were to ask baseball fans at large which team right now has the biggest division lead in baseball -- and they were required to blurt out their first thought without looking at the standings or even think much about it -- my hunch is the Rays would get the most votes. They've been the best team in baseball from the start and have a rather large lead in the AL East at 6 1/2 games. 

The biggest lead, however, belongs to the Atlanta Braves

While the Braves haven't been the Rays, they've been dominant from the start as well, just with two different down stretches. The Braves were 6-1 before losing three straight and then 14-4 before dropping four in a row. Right now they sit 24-11 with the overwhelming majority of their losses concentrated in two losing streaks against quality competition. 

This means the Braves are on pace to win 111 games. That would easily be a franchise record and while they are unlikely to hold that pace, I'm merely pointing it out so fans can have a good perspective of just how well the Braves have played to this point. 

On the flip side, the other expected NL East contenders have been uneven. The Mets are 17-18 after having lost 11 of their last 14 games. They do have an easy upcoming schedule, but those nine of those 11 losses we just mentioned came to the Nationals, Tigers and Rockies. The Phillies got hot to rise above .500 after a slow start, but now they've dropped six of their last seven games and are just 16-19. The Marlins weren't necessarily an expected contender, but they weren't expected to be a doormat, either, and sometimes those teams can break through. They've lost six of their last seven and the one-run record of 11-0 likely means a further backslide is coming. 

This all means the Braves have a seven-game lead in the division and SportsLine says they have a 92.4% chance to win the NL East for the sixth straight season. Just look at how their performance teamed with the slow Mets and Phillies starts have shifted the betting odds. 

Caesars Sportsbook odds before the season: 

  • Mets, +140
  • Braves, +145
  • Phillies, +280
  • Marlins, +6000

Caesars Sportsbook odds entering Tuesday, May 9

  • Braves, -400
  • Mets, +450
  • Phillies, +800
  • Marlins, +4000

Now, the 2022 Braves can attest that storming out to a fast start while your chief competition gets off to a slow start doesn't guarantee a division title. The Braves were 16-19 at this point last season and fell to 10 1/2 games back at the end of May. They would end up winning 101 games and taking the division by virtue of a tiebreaker. 

The 2021 Braves can also attest that it's possible to lie in the weeds for much of the season before breaking through with a special year. They didn't top .500 until August and then won the World Series. 

This is the long way to say the thing we already knew: Where the Braves are right now guarantees them absolutely nothing when it comes to making the playoffs and certainly has very little impact on how they play in the postseason, should they make it. 

Of course, it should also be noted that they've banked an awful lot of credit. That 24-11 record for the first 21.6% of the season is already banked. It means the Braves could go 71-56 the rest of the way and end up with 95 wins. They went 85-42 from this point forward last season. 

In digging in even more on what has been banked to this point, there are now fundamental questions that must be answered for anyone wishing to pick the Mets or Phillies to win the NL East this year. 

  • If you want to pick the Mets to win the NL East: Did you believe, heading into the season, that the Mets would finish with a record of at least seven games better than the Braves? If not, what has changed your mind? If so, do you think they can do it in 35 fewer games? 
  • If you want to pick the Phillies to win the NL East: Did you believe, heading into the season, that the Phillies would finish with a record of at least eight games better than the Braves? If not, what has changed your mind? If so, do you think they can do it in 35 fewer games? 

I know the Braves climbed out of a deeper hole in fewer games last season, but it's awfully tough to me to pick anyone but the Braves right now. What they are doing isn't a fluke. They are this good. 

In terms of the gambling perspective, that Braves price is likely too high to pay, but no one else is worth a bet. It's either just avoid the bet -- wishing you'd have grabbed the Braves earlier -- wait for a Braves losing streak and then pounce if the odds flatten, or just pay the exorbitant price on the Braves now and hope they don't choke. 

I don't think they will. 

Let's take a look. 

1. The offensive firepower

Late last season, when it started to look obvious the Braves were going to run down the Mets, a scout pointed out to me that "outside of 1-2 hitters, the Mets have to string together a bunch of singles and the Braves just slug." They are doing it again. Entering Tuesday, the Braves rank fourth in the NL in batting average and eighth in doubles, but they are first in homers and slugging percentage (and OPS and total bases). In an era with so many strikeouts and such great defensive preparation -- even with the shift limits -- power remains king. 

The Braves already have three players with at least nine (a full-season pace of 42) home runs and three more with exactly six (a full-season pace of 28). That's 2/3 of a lineup crushing homers on a quasi-regular basis. 

Pairing that kind of power with an NL-best .340 on-base percentage is a recipe of a lot of multi-run homers and those often change the complexion of the game. 

2. The MVP front-runner

It's easy to forget -- or take for granted -- how much Ronald Acuña Jr. did at such a young age. In 2019, at age 21, he led the league in runs (127) and stolen bases (37) while clubbing 41 homers with 101 RBI. The pandemic season followed and he was having a monster 2021 season before tearing his ACL and having to watch his teammates win the World Series without him. Last year, he just wasn't himself and it isn't difficult to figure out why.

Well, he's back and better than ever now with a fully functional knee at age 25. 

Ronald Acuna
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He is doing absolutely everything, which is why it makes sense that he paces the majors in WAR. He would win MVP right now, probably unanimously. 

3. The newly acquired catcher

Freed from the A's pathetic tank job, Sean Murphy has been exceptional as a two-way catcher. He's leading the NL in slugging, OPS and OPS+. He's one of the players I mentioned above who has nine homers. He's driven home 28 runs in 31 games. Perhaps most importantly, he's been outstanding, as expected, behind the plate. 

4. The pitching upside

Overall, the Braves have gotten very good -- even great -- pitching. Spencer Strider has legitimately been one of the best pitchers in baseball while youngster Bryce Elder has been magnificent with a 1.74 ERA in seven starts. 

The scary thing is the Braves pitchers are probably, collectively, better than the numbers so far show. Max Fried has been, predictably, great, but he also missed around three weeks with an injury and now he's back on the injured list with a forearm strain. Kyle Wright has been injured and much worse than he's capable (even if a backslide from last year was expected, he's better than a 5.79 ERA). 

Closer Raisel Iglesias was injured and has only been back for two appearances. Late-inning lefty A.J. Minter had a disastrous stretch that has bloated his stats, but he's also now strung together three straight scoreless innings. With these two settled back into their roles, the rest of the bullpen falls into place and there's enough upside to be the best group manager Brian Snitker has managed yet -- and that's saying a lot. 

The truncated version of this is that while the Braves sit second in the NL in team ERA, it's possible their best work is yet to come. They have all the pieces to be the best pitching staff in the league. 

Now, it's possible Fried misses an extended amount of time with this forearm injury. The Braves are equipped to deal with this due to their organizational pitching depth. We've already seen them navigate injuries. Assuming Fried comes back strong in time for the second half, they'll really hit their stride down the stretch. 

5. The front office

As noted above, Acuña was lost during a season in which the Braves won it all. Part of it was a weak division (they only won 88 games, after all), part of it was getting hot the right time, part was luck (hey, you gotta be good and lucky to win it all; that's just how it is), but an incredibly important part was the front office. 

In losing one of the most talented players in baseball, Braves general manager Alex Anthopolous threw everything he could at the problem. In the weeks after the Acuña injury, the Braves acquired outfielders Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall. All played significant roles in the Braves winning the title. 

Remember, since then, the Braves have also traded to acquire both Murphy and star first baseman Matt Olson, the latter replacing then-free agent Freddie Freeman

This is to say that if the Braves encounter a big injury before now and the trade deadline, I trust Anthopolous to find a way to replace at least some of the lost production. He's done it lots of times in building this roster, whether acquiring a star or a player to plug a hole temporarily. 

The most likely outcome here is the Braves end up comfortably winning the NL East. They've already shown the ability to finish strong and now they've started strong in the face of some injury adversity.